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Packing a single bag for air travel

I apply my experience with backpacking and camping to packing lightly and efficiently for air travel.

Published , 1,168 words

In my adult professional life, I have found traveling by air and staying in civilized sleeping accommodations much more predictable and hassle-free than primitive camping in the wilderness. I spent my childhood and teenage years camping and backpacking, which gave me a solid foundation on which I’ve established a packing routine that means I’m comfortable and well-equipped at my destination without being overburdened.

I have an allergy to hassles at the airport and intensely dislike checking baggage, chiefly if I have to make a connecting flight. Unfortunately, with modern airport security being what it is, these two statements are at odds with one another. However, with enough experience, I’ve settled on a carry-on packing system that works for me and TSA.

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What to pack?

My packing list changes from trip to trip and depends on several factors. Each pack starts with essentials and adapts to the climate and accommodations at my destination.

I default to black cotton or wool-synthetic blend t-shirts and black synthetic pants in everyday life and travel. This uniform serves as the base for the rest of my layering philosophy.

First, I worry about the climate. I can’t control the temperature or weather at my destination; appropriate clothing is key to staying comfortable. I tend to dress in layers, which I can add or remove on the go.

I consider 10-degree daytime temperature ranges along with rain or snow forecasts for anything else:

Rain in the weather forecast calls for quick-drying synthetics and wool blends; if not, I opt for more natural fibers like linen, cotton, and down.

Shoes are nearly impossible to pack, and you never know when you may need to walk (or run!) an unexpectedly long distance. I solve this by wearing a single pair of shoes on the plane and throughout the journey. Given these constraints, I’m particular about my single pair of shoes. I like trail runners for their ubiquity and utility. However, if the trip necessitates a more formal shoe, I wear workwear derbies.

Lastly, I do a quick research on clothes-washing options. I plan on at least a clean pair of socks and underwear every day of my stay, but I can bring fewer pairs than days if I can do laundry. Airbnbs sometimes have a washer and dryer; relatives or friends almost always do. If a hotel has a laundry service, bringing fewer clothes is an additional cost. If not, I can always wash my laundry in the hotel sink and dry them without a dryer.

What to pack in?

For air travel, I prefer carrying a single backpack with straps. Many others have aesthetic or practical grounds for choosing rolling luggage, but I like to have my possessions on my back. In addition, I prefer to stay within reach of my bag, and smaller regional flights sometimes dictate gate-checking suitcases if the overhead bin space is scarce. Gate agents typically do not bat an eye at backpacks.

A backpack tends to blend into casual environments and can stow without fuss. In addition, ride-share drivers with small cars tend to make less of a big deal about a backpack than rolling luggage, and public transit is easier to manage.

When selecting a backpack, I optimize for volume and form. I have both 26L and 40L bags, which are both carry-on compatible, have external laptop sleeves for breezing through airport security, and stow either under the airplane seat in front of me or take up a minimal amount of room in the overhead bin.

Packing hacks

The art of fitting 10 pounds of gear into a 5-pound bag is one of minimizing volume. To do this, I opt for fabrics and materials that offer the most warmth relative to their weight and fold the individual items as small as possible.

I Ranger-roll my shirts and underwear and match my socks, which take up a third of the space they would if folded or thrown in loose.

Unworn jackets or mid-layers get stuffed into stuff sacks. I opt for strong bags designed to withstand forcibly-compacted contents.

I pack everything into packing cubes and arrange the cubes in order of priority. I put anything I will unpack at my destination towards the bottom of my bag. Cubes or sacks containing items I may need within easy reach lay towards the top of the pack.

Liquid toiletries need to be kept in bottles, which are bulky (and need to be removed for airport security screening). I explicitly avoid liquid toiletries, opting for multi-purpose bar soap and an electric razor. I took a page from the ultralight backpacking playbook and cut a cheap toothbrush in half to reduce its volume.

I purchased a 65w GAN USB-C charger for my electronics and either switch between charging devices or charge my laptop and charge my other devices from my laptop’s USB ports. The GAN charger is much smaller than my computer’s stock power brick.

I’ve accepted cable chaos as unavoidable but manageable if considered. I loosely stuff my cables into a stuff sack and pull them out as needed. I’ve heard someone refer to this as “spaghetti in a bag,” which is easy for me to manage if I limit it to two or three cables.

Luxury items

I consider anything outside the bare essentials to be a “luxury item,” or items that might make my trip incrementally more pleasant or the modern air travel experience more humane. I include these items if I have room in my bag; I don’t compromise and pack them into a giant backpack for their sake.

I leave space in my packing. I count on my items expanding about 10% throughout my travels since repacking is inevitably sloppier. Also, this extra room lets me pick up souvenirs or gifts along the way without needing to mail them home or carry them in another bag.

Lastly, I consider my sleeping accommodations. Hotels (even cheap ones) are consistent and require no extra packing. However, if I’m staying with a friend or splitting an Airbnb with several other people, I may need to be flexible and sleep on a couch—which calls for an eye mask, earplugs, and a thermal sleeping bag liner I use as a clean blanket.